A can with a meaningless expiration date on the end

What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

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Did you know those dates you find on the ends of cans, boxes, tubes, and other packaging aren’t uniformly regulated on the federal level and don’t really mean anything?

They’re not even legally required—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just recommends them. Except for baby formula, food only has to be fit for consumption no matter how old it is.

States Differ

Now, at the state-level, there is a bit more meaning to food expiration dates, but not much.

One state can declare milk has to be sold by the”Sell-by” date. But the store just across state line—which is just across the street where I live—the “sell by” date is irrelevant as long as long as the milk isn’t spoiled.

Since there are no uniform federal regulations controlling food expiration dates, it’s up to you to know what those packaging dates mean and how long food is safe to eat.

“Sell-By” Dates

“Sell-by” dates are message from the manufacturer to the store about how long they can display a product for sale. It is not a food safety date or a directive to the consumer.

Did You Know?

Stores often turn food that’s past its sell-by date into other food. Chicken breasts, for example, become chicken salad sold at the store’s deli.

“Best By” or “Best if Used By” Dates

The “best by” or “best if used by” dates are messages from the manufacturer to the consumer about when the food will taste its best. The date has nothing to do with food safety.

After that date, the manufacturer’s research says the product will begin to change: artificial colors may fade, or liquids may separate but it’s still safe to eat.

“Use By” and “Expires After” Dates

As with “best by” dates, these are messages from the manufacturer to the consumer that the product may look or taste different after the date, so they should eat it or freeze it.

The USDA notes that food does not necessarily become unsafe to eat after its “use-by” or “expires after” date labels.

Signs Food is Not Safe to Eat

Before supermarkets and quality dates on food packaging, people had to rely on their senses to determine if foods were safe to eat. Guess what? Those still work.

  • Bulging cans or jars with bulging lids mean bacterial spoilage.
  • Mold growth, drying out, and hardening are signs of expiration.
  • Odors, slime, and textural changes in perishable foods are rot.
  • Gnawed boxes, larvae, and droppings indicate household pest infestations.

How Long Food Stays Fresh (A-Z List)

So, if you can’t trust the label, how do you know? It all comes down to how you store it.

If you can’t eat a food while it’s fresh, freeze it. As long as you wrap them well, most frozen foods are good indefinitely. (Yep, another food myth!)

Foods A-C

  • Bacon (fresh or cooked): 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Butter: 1 month fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Bread: 5 days shelf, 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Canned goods: 3 to 6 years if kept in a cool, dark place and indented
  • Cereal: 3-5 months opened, 6-8 months unopened
  • Chocolate: 1 year
  • Cooked beef: 1 week fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Cooked poultry: 2-3 days fridge, 1 year freezer
  • Cooked sausage: 7 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Cottage cheese: 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 5-7 days open in the fridge, 3 months frozen
  • Cream: 7-10 days fridge, 2-4 months freezer
  • Cream cheese: 3-4 weeks unopened, 1-2 weeks opened

Foods D-G

  • Dairy products: See individual items
  • Dried beans: Indefinite
  • Eggs: 3-6 weeks
  • Flours: 6-8 months (self-rising and wheat: 4-6 months)
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: Varies
  • Fresh poultry: 1-2 days fridge, 1 year freezer
  • Fresh fish: 1-2 days fridge, 6-9 months freezer
  • Fresh meat (unground or ground meats): 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables: 1 year unopened, 1 month opened in freezer
  • Frozen meals: 1 year
  • Ground beef: 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer

Foods H-L

  • Ham, cured: 1 week (bone removed) fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Herbs: 1-2 years dried whole, 2-3 years ground
  • Hot dogs: 1 week fridge opened, 2 weeks fridge unopened, 6 months freezer
  • Ice cream: 1-2 months opened, 2-3 months unopened
  • Jam/Jelly: 6-9 months fridge opened, 1 year pantry unopened
  • Juice: Pantry 6-9 months unopened, 5-7 days open in fridge
  • Ketchup: 1-2 years unopened, 1 year opened
  • Lunch meat: Packaged 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 2-3 months unopened in freezer, 5-6 days opened in fridge

Foods M-R

  • Mayonnaise: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 month opened fridge
  • Mustard: 1-2 years unopened pantry, 1 year opened fridge
  • Milk: 5-7 days after printed date but give it a sniff test
  • Oatmeal: Instant, pantry 1-2 years; all others, pantry 2-3 years
  • Oils: Corn, canola, peanut, olive, coconut: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 year after opening.
  • Olives: 1-2 years pantry, 3-4 months opened in the fridge
  • Pasta: Indefinitely.
  • Peanut butter: Regular 1 year open/unopened; Natural 4 months open/unopened
  • Pickles: 1-2 years pantry unopened, 1-2 years fridge opened
  • Popcorn: Plain, indefinitely; microwaveable, unpopped 6-8 months pantry
  • Rice: White, 4-5 years uncooked pantry; brown, 6-8 months uncooked pantry, cooked up to 4 days in the fridge, 1 month in a freezer

Foods S-Z

  • Salad dressings: Creamy (open or unopened) 1-2 months; oil-based (open or unopened) 3-4 months
  • Salsa: 1-2 months pantry unopened, 1-2 months fridge opened
  • Soda: 6-9 months unopened in the fridge, 1 year unopened in a pantry
  • Sour cream: 1-2 weeks unopened, 1 week opened in the fridge
  • Spices: 1-2 years dried, 2-3 years ground, 4 years whole
  • Sugar: Indefinitely
  • Tea (bag or loose leaves): 6-12 months pantry, 1 year freezer
  • Tuna: 2-5 years pantry unopened cans, 5 days opened in the fridge
  • Vinegar: Indefinite
  • Yogurt: 1-2 weeks unopened fridge, 1 week opened fridge, 1 month (open or unopened) freezer

If you’re in doubt about a food’s safety, by all means, throw it out. But don’t just do it because there’s a date on the package. It’s not the boss of you.

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  1. Excellent information, Thankyou. Love the daily hints. Keep up the good work.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you!

  2. Karena Schaefer says:

    Thank you! This is very useful. I will be printing this out.

  3. Sylvia Hanna says:

    Very good to know! Thanks! Will be printing out this article to keep near my refrigerator!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Great place for it, Sylvia!

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